Wednesday, April 14, 2004

In Chapter 2, my characters go through the tough transitional period into a new kind of thinking or reality.

Excerpts from a War in Progress by Elad Haber (part 2 of 4)

The oddest smell filled the cramped car. Among all the cigarettes and fart smells, something incredibly distinctive woke up the car. Conversation was louder, quicker, more injected with humor and therefore followed by waves of laughter. And for the first time since the one brute beside me slapped me, they acknowledged my presence, made some jokes at my expense (mostly about my mother), and then offered me a drag off a strangely-rolled cigarette. I gasped in the heathen’s face. The four of them shook their head as one and laughed some more.
The tension that had built up earlier was now gone, replaced by a calm indifference. As we approached the Castle gates in the bright sun of daylight, the Hitmen grinned but, my heart, feeling pings of dread like splinters in my soul, attempted to sink back to the bottom of my stomach and this massive mountain we had climbed.
No such luck. Everything stayed where it was. The front gate of the Castle, complete with drawbridge, plunging mote, and large gargoyles statues at the top, was open and half-crowded with people. Workers, from the look of their hunched shoulders and vacant expressions; I recognized the type from my years in a ghetto Church in Baltimore. The car rolled over the bridge quickly.
Even to call it a Castle now feels wrong; ‘city-state’ would be more accurate. On the tight “street” lanes, beneath curved swathes of open air, streets were divided by rows of small shops, one almost on top of the other. On the ‘street’, cars, people, and bicycles somehow moved as one. When one of the passing shoppers saw something of interest, they would take two or three steps to the left or right and step right inside one of the shops. If it was a tiny shop with a crowd waiting to get in, the street itself would not slow down, the customers and waiting-customers would get shoved into adjoining shops, where they would wait, “pretend” to shop, and finally enter the store they want. I’m sure much merchandise was lost each year due to accidental breakage.
Occasionally, a skateboarder would slice about through the street full of single-lane movement and disrupt the whole flow of traffic. A lot of shouting and cursing (and sometimes violence) would follow. As you can imagine, the intense traffic of people cars, and wheeled-forms of transportation was slow-going. The Hitmen rolled and smoked another joint while I tried to make sense of this crazy juxtaposition of realities being played out before me. I felt like I was in an Indiana Jones film, that scene in one of the movies where he’s being chased through a bazaar by black-cloaked assassins. Except my assassins hadn’t made their appearance yet; they were hiding just around the corner.
The goods sold at the Castle bazaar were varied. Every third booth appeared to be selling marijuana or hash, while all the ones in between had old fat men shouting about their Flowers! or Fish! or their remarkably sturdy china! Or their amazingly useful slaves!
I was becoming more than a little disgusted by the place, with its sins topped with sins, sprinkled with sin, when the car finally stopped. Looking around, I was a drunkard coming off a day-long binge. The sky had stopped moving, my heart stopped skipping, and now dreadful reality was going to step in. Soon, anyway. This stalling was nerve-wracking, for sure.
The Hitmen opened their doors and began to pull themselves out of the car. I realized we weren’t in a crowded, “tourist”-friendly part of the city-state anymore. Not a human soul walked anywhere in this dark block. Windows were boarded up shut and doorways were green with rust, shadows everywhere. The Hitmen stretched their fat bodies, lit cigarettes, and leaned against the car, waiting.
For what? I didn’t know. No one motioned for me to get out, but after ten or fifteen minutes (I think), I stepped out, slowly, fearing punishment. The Hitmen didn’t try to stop/hit me. My legs felt like rubber and, still in my shackles of shame, I collapsed onto the back of the car immediately upon stepping out. They laughed, pointed, and then helped me up.
They cradled my numb body between them like a defensive line in American football, then they all looked up and smiled as if for a photograph. A moment or two later, another gate revealed itself from the shadows, began to open with a loud screeching of chains, revealing darkness beyond. One of the Hitmen went back to the car but the other three grabbed me and shoved me forward. As an afterthought, almost, one of them released me from my shackles and then threw them into the car. My joints and wrists and ankles were numb with pain.
One of the Hitmen said to me, “Behave.”
This area of the city burned with endless fires. Many smelled of flesh but some of iron and copper. Dark variations of the bazaar from the rest of the city were here, similar shops but with carcasses and demon-meat for sale. Humans were in the majority, but, towering above even the tallest ones, were gargoyle-like demons. Creatures with wings and legs and ugly, ugly faces. They all had muscles protruding out of thin slashes of clothing. When they passed near me, I smelled a mixture of sweat and animal-blood. In a way, seeing these creatures, I was relieved. I always believed that the True Evil from the Holy Bible was real and personified in some way on Earth. This was it; the root of all evil. Hell on Earth.
Exactly where I wanted to be.

‘Twas the time of night.
You know, when all the “good” people lock their doors. The daytime is pure, you see, a time when you can hear schoolchildren and babies on the street; people with jobs going about their business or on their lunchbreaks, some in uniforms. Random, clean-looking people are out, jogging. At night, you see bums and prostitutes and slowly-moving police cars.
And trouble-maker kids.
Like me, I guess you could say. I was 22, last April, but my roughneck gear, shaved head, and baby-blue eyes made me look like a high-school dealer. I was anything but… But, on this night, I was on a mission to find a dealer. I should have known to do it in the day; when things are “pure.”
I didn’t get far, on my mission, not even through the turnstile. I was walking towards the subway station, a flash and rumble from above indicating the beginning of my bad luck. I was just about to grab a door and pull it when I heard two voices from behind me yell, “Hey!” and “You!” I froze, for a millisecond, and then rushed inside. Loud footsteps and cursing from outside.
Three steps in, and they were on me. A slap to the back of my head brought me to my knees and two rough sets of hands grabbed my arms and pulled them, hard, to the small of my back. Someone used their foot to push me onto the floor.
Some white man’s voice said, “You run from the cops? You dumb fuck!”
“Say something, you turd! So we can slap the shit out of you.”
I said nothing. I knew cops in this city, in this neighborhood. Always out to prove they’re tough. There’s nothing they love more than a punk with a big mouth. I wasn’t afraid of a beating, just so you know, I just wanted this whole ordeal to be over with.
My body went numb, like it was ready for bed. I would have liked to be in my bed.
“Allright,” said one of the cops, “be a fuckin’ mute! Search his bag.”
My stomach dropped, like on a rollercoaster.
The big fat cop (there’s always one) picked up my bag, ripped open the zipper, and dropped all my junk onto the dirty concrete. He picked up books: Chaucer, Nobokov, Saligner; threw them away lik coffee-stained napkins. A journal pad that I kept for the last year, opened, nosed-through, and then discarded into a puddle. My heart broke in halves, quarters, then thirds.
I waited for the twist in the scene. Like in a movie, you know?, when the hero shows up just in the right moment. I waited for someone to come help me. But, as the police officer unrolled (what-looked-like) a bulging sock, I realized, this was Real Life, not the movies. Films only mock reality and its drab-like gloominess in hopes of “jazzing”-it-up.
Said a cop, “What have we here!”
The other answered, “That looks like a little … paraphernalia!”
The fat cop held up a little bag full of a green substance in one hand, and then a small dark-colored glass pipe in the other. The one holding me whispered in my ear: “Do you know the word busted, kid?”
I nodded.
“Hey! Lookee, Chuck, he understands English. Thought you were one those of NoHablaEnglisssh motherfuckers. I really hate that. You live in this country and you don’t know the fuckin’ language?”
The fat cop stood in front of me, dangling the drugs like a toy on a string. A small crowd had formed, on the other side of the turnstile, watching the show. I sighed and wanted to put some sort of mask on my face. “You’ll have to excuse my verbose and longwinded partner,” said the cop. “He’s a life-long bachelor.”
The guy holding me got a little angry at that and shoved me towards the doors. “Come on, kiddo, it’s time for you to take a ride.”
Outside, it had started to rain. Black raindrops in a black night, for my black mood. They led me through thankfully deserted streets to a van. Three other hoodie kids from the ghetto sat, handcuffed, like zombies in the back. The cops put me towards the front, a sort of “special” case. They said they liked “talking” to me.
I had the image of two lonely grand-aunts, talking and talking and talking just cause someone other than the two of them were there.
Occasionally, I would glance back and see the kids in the back staring angrily up at the front. Probably, not at me, but something told me I was in danger. Maybe not here, but, later tonight, somewhere. I sighed audibly. What’s left of my broken heart fell to the floor of that fucked-up-mobile, rattling around with all the empty soda cans and pieces of crumpled-up paper.
The cops drove us around for about an hour. They listened to their radio for the first couple minutes, but then turned it off and turned on the chatter. Back and forth they went, like chirping birds, one voice trying to eclipse the other in decibel level. Finally, they pulled in somewhere and turned off the engine.
“Come on, you moops, time for a bathroom break.”
“Yeah, you won’t be able to tell anyone we mistreated your sorry asses.”
We filed out like Holocaust-refugees in the rain, in a warehouse district of the city. Although I was just in handcuffs, the other three were in full shackles and connected, like a chain gang. I pitied them. We walked through an industrial size door into a ghost-image of an office. Cobwebs and shadows and broken glass. Doors with hinges missing, doors on the floor, doors painted red.
One of the cops said to me, “About a year back, some kids like you threw one of those “raves” here at the warehouse. After the “party”, some high kids stormed in here and wrecked the place, been deserted ever since.”
The other one added, “Fuckin’ kids.” They both laughed.
We reached a wide, dark hall. The doors to the Men’s and Women’s bathrooms were nowhere to be found, only the faded box-cutter image of a man and a man with a dress on differentiated the two. The fat cop started talking while the other one slowly released all of us.
“Allright, kids, we’re gonna give you a little taste of freedom. Play NICE, aight?, or you’re going to get your ass kicked. It’s getting late.” He pointed at the Ladies Room. “You little Ladies are in there. No way we’re gonna hold your dicks while you piss, so you guys just go in there, do your shit, and come the fuck out. No stupid shit.” He nodded at the Men’s Room. “We’ll be in here.”
The three hoodies started walking into the bathroom. I followed them, hesitantly. Immediately, the three shuffled into the three first, doorless stalls. I stepped quickly behind them to the last stall, the only one with a door. It was a cripple’s toilet and very large.
I closed the door and debated whether to lock it or not. I did, but only made a show of pissing. I flushed the toilet and stepped out.
They were ready for me, around the stall entrance like a U.
“White boy,” said one in a deep voice, “Wanna purge your sins? Pledge your loyalty to the Darkness, now. Or die.”
Like I said before, I’m not afraid of getting my ass kicked. I said, “Fuck you, weirdo.”
The two on my side lunged for me. I tried to dodge, but couldn’t, ended up backing up. The cripple’s bathroom was my epilogue, my deciding vote, there was no room to maneuver and I was out-numbered. They kicked at my knees until they buckled and I found myself on the floor again. The punk with the deep voice took a step near me and readied himself to kick me.
“Repent, sinner!” He attempted the kick. I grabbed his foot and with the strength of despair, I pulled at it as hard as I could. There was a loud snap! and the kid fell back on his ass.
I lunged forward, towards the exit. The familiar smell of smoked marijuana and the sound of giggling from the Men’s Room made me angry. Instead of fleeing, I turned back to the two standing punks, gaining on me with a little hint of fear in their eyes.
One of them said, “Why don’t you shout for help? The police will come protect your pale pampered ass.”
I’m not a violent person, but, living in this world, in my world, I learned long ago: A Man not willing to stand up and fight when the time calls is not a Man, but a child.
(“Are you a boy, or a man?” they used to ask me on the street. “A man,” I would say, “A man.” “Then, prove it, kid.”)
The punks attacked me like Ends coming in for a sack. I lifted up my arms and slammed my elbows and knees into their sensitive areas (gut, crotch, legs). With balled fists, I cracked their jaws and fractured ribs. It felt like long, long, minutes before the cops returned and pulled me off them. They threw me out of the bathroom into the hall, strange expressions of disbelief on their stoned faces.
“We told you fuckers about behaving.”
“We told you fuckers the price for misbehaving.”
Even high, the cops looked ready for action at any moment. They pulled out their clubs and snickered. The fat one said, “Stand up, punk. Come on.”
I didn’t. I couldn’t.
“No more fight left in you, pussy?”
The truth: No. I was all fought out. My heart was empty. I regret, I have no more blood to give for my country.
I said, after a pause of silence, “I’m just brokenhearted, man.”
They looked at each other, gave a knowing nod, like they could put themselves in my shoes and know, you know? They put away their clubs and led me away to the van. They left the hoodie-punks in the dirt and grime of the Ladies Room.

Moonlit rooftops, in an urban sprawl. A good lookout point for the battle to come. One night to go.
My soldiers are positioning right now. Setting up camp/shop. They won’t move till midnight tomorrow night. Halloween Night; (I figured I’d do what your God never had the courtesy to do: be on time.) I shall deliver my own version of the Apocalypse, in full display of any cameras or passersby’s. I want the world to see what’s coming.
Only a handful of my elite soldiers are out on the hunt tonight, planting the seeds of discontent and unrest. The previews before the film.
I look down the street and I feel like weeping. The poor people here live in a frightening state of squalor. The decadence overwhelms me, causes me to look away. Homeless beggars, dirty children in broken strollers, police smoking cigarettes while kids are getting chased by other kids across the street. Buses and cars fighting for space, spewing death through little black clouds, choking anybody nearby. This is my neighborhood.
A few dozen blocks downtown, my spies see bars and restaurants overflowing with cocaine addicts and drunks and sex-fiends and money, money, money; everywhere. Clubs and parties and “upscale” engagements. Limos and cabs.
Cabs to the bar, cabs to his place. Tips to the cabbie, tips to the doorman. Wine, weed. Late night trip to the 24hour Pakistani place for condoms and rolling paper. The grocer is worried about his children in a war-torn village near Kashmir. The rich man buys some cigarettes to go with his condoms and the two smile at each other. The Pakstani curses him under his breath.
The man goes back to his building, into a crowded elevator. He is a little worried, because it is very late, and the men in the elevator look (and smell) like they’ve been sleeping in gutters. The man never leaves the elevator alive.
Further downtown, a State Senator and his family are staying at a suite at the Ritz-Carlton. His children spend the day shopping at F.A.O Shwartz or doing drugs in dark, smoky rooms. The youngest one spends all day on his laptop consuming can after can of caffeine. In the evening, the State Senator and his wife are arguing. Same old fight; mistresses, girlfriends. Not one or two, but quite a few. There’s lots of shouting, cursing, some shoving, and other hints of further violence. The Senator’s wife, in a fit of rage, runs into the little Kitchen with the intention of getting a knife. In the hall, she passes the faces of her children, sitting on couches, staring at her with shattered eyes and wet cheeks. She decides against the knife, returns to the master bedroom. The next morning, they are photographed smiling and kissing at their son’s birthday party. Sometime, in the early morning, they decided on a deal. Their married life, from now, would be a show. The senator decided he would run only more term, another six years; by then all the children but one will be out of the house, in college or beyond. They could save money, and then, divorce. Go their separate ways.
They cried as they said goodnight.
I didn’t choose to come here. I didn’t choose to do this. You people brought me here. Your greed and selfishness is my inspiration. Your despair is my fuel. Your deaths will be my sweet dessert.

The lobby of the major multi-billion dollar studio had a huge, silver, work of art in the center of the wide atrium. Fenced in by trees, bushes, and rising flower stalks, a string of silver went up a few dozen stories, to the top of wide and tall lobby. A seeming thousand hollow globes were placed one atop the other, stratosphere upon stratosphere upon stratosphere, their string of thin lines mimicking our Earth in its many thousands of years of evolution. The globes were in motion, too, some moving on a tilt in a clockwise fashion, like the real Earth, others spinning aimlessly on their center, some randomly. The globes continued into the cross-hatched ceiling, disappearing through the plaster.
“Does it continue into the next floor?” I asked no one in particular.
“Yes!” said a Uniformed Man. “All the way to the top floor, through the roof! The building was actually built around and above the Mobile.” The man wore a bright, multi-colored uniform, like a ticket-taker at a movie theatre, an ugly hat that had the letter I on it (for Information or Idiot, I assume), and a nametag that said, “Hi. I’m Charlie. I’m here to help!”
I only half-listened to what he said. He smiled at me and gave me those ‘I think you’re cute’-eyes. Too bad (for him) I didn’t date men who worked bullshit jobs. He babbled some more.
“The globes represent people and our company slogan, ‘Every person is a world onto themselves!’ [This guy loved exclamation points.] None of the globes intersect but they all share common features, textures, and rotations. You’ll notice, some of the globes rotate in opposite directions from the one below or above them, symbolizing our company’s continued respect for all styles of individuality. We know Life can be hard, and many times you find yourself lost among strangers, but that’s why we have something for everyone. Like our many TV channels, clothing lines, and car accessories.”
He cleared his throat. “Are you for looking for something, or someone, Miss?”
‘Not you,’ I thought, but said, “The photo office for Fashion DO’s magazine.”
“Ah! The new ‘hip’ rag, huh?” He laughed at his own joke. “Of course; third floor. (All of the third floor!) Take the C elevators.” I nodded a Thank You and walked slow-and-sexy-like to the elevators. (I was thankful for the information, you understand.)
The brightly lit and circular platform hummed when I stepped onto it. “Hello,” said a female computer voice, startling me. “Which floor, please?”
I looked around for a camera or a microphone or something, but saw nothing. I sighed and said, “Three.”
“Thank you,” said the voice in computer-generated enthusiasm. “Have a nice day!”
One of the silver doors slid open with a little whoosh like something out of Star Trek. The elevator itself was mostly opaque, except the floor and ceiling. In panorama, I saw the massive lobby, with the globes statue, all the trees and bushes glowing with green light (both natural and artificial). Little human-being-toys walked around, pretending to do something interesting. Finally, dozens of stories up at the top of the lobby, the little elevator was plunged into darkness for a moment.
Then, calm, artificial yellow light. I heard music: Classical; violins, pianos. Quartet and Trio stuff, nothing too dramatic. A calm atmosphere. The door to the elevator slid open.
The music got louder, the muffle gone, and the sound of very clear speakers in clever places. The room I stepped into was long and tall. Almost no echo came from the music. A musician plucked at his violin slowly, like a bass guitar. I walked with the rhythm, my footsteps falling quietly on soft red carpeting. Marble columns lined the room, with small chandeliers every few feet. Very impressive.
At the end of the room, sitting behind a massive security-style desk two beautiful women, in pantsuits, with their hair pulled way back, locked their eyes on me. Above them, in a simple but memorable font, the single word ‘VOGUE’ decorated the wall and gave it the aura of a Holy wall in a Temple.
I stepped into conversation-range with the desk. Before I could say anything, as one, the two women pointed at a simple-looking side door. One of them (with a bit of an attitude) said, “Models. In there.”
“Am I in the right place? I’m here for-“
The other female said: “Fashion DO’s. We know. Vogue owns them.”
The first woman pointed again, dismissing me. “Models. In there.”
I stood there for another full minute and then left. Bitches. Through the little door (that even had a scratched up sign that said “Models”) and into a backstage-looking hall. The place was littered floor to ceiling with random equipment, curtains, used clothes, and tripods (lots of tripods). Either the photography department was really large or the whole place was small.
It didn’t take long to find where I was supposed to be. In, what could only be described as an alcove, standing around a water cooler or sitting in little steel chairs, a dozen or so beautiful women in a range of beautiful colors greeted the newest arrival with indifferent stares. I returned the same stares, all down the line, until I reached the last one, a tall tanned blonde sitting by herself, staring back at me and shaking her head: her.
Beside her, the only open chair was left. There was no room on the other side of the alcove to stand. I sighed (so she could hear) and approached her. I sat down without a word exchanged, until …
After a minute or so of uncomfortable silence, she said, “Hey.”
I looked back at her. I remembered the flash of kinship I felt with her yesterday, on the street in front of FIT. “Hey.”
“…Small world.”
I said, “Small city.” We laughed, together.
“My name’s Maria,” she said, a Spanish accent peeking through beneath the blondeness. I looked her over again. “And you are..”
I smiled at her as if I forgot my own name. “Everyone just calls me H.”
She stifled the urge to laugh, but then said, sweetly, “H. It’s nice to meet you… again.”
There was a comfortable silence this time. I stared at all the equipment and the dirty floor. Maria saw my expression and grinned. “Don’t worry,” she said. “Things are not usually what they appear to be. I would think you would have learned that by now.”
“I am learning,” I said.

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